Global imprisonment of journalists spikes amid U.S. inaction

Seth Stern

Director of Advocacy

The death of Mahsa Amini has led to worldwide protests but journalists covering the unrest in her homeland of Iran have been imprisoned in record numbers.

Taymaz Valley

An annual census from the Committee to Protect Journalists shows more journalists were imprisoned at the end of 2022 than in any of the 30 years CPJ has issued the report.

The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, a project of Freedom of the Press Foundation and CPJ, documented a lower number of arrests in the United States last year than in recent years, largely due to fewer protests here. But countries experiencing increased unrest trended in the opposite direction and many such countries imprison journalists for months or years in deplorable conditions.

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For example, as of Dec. 1, 2022, 62 of the 363 imprisoned journalists were in Iran, making Iran the world’s worst “jailer of journalists” (it was 10th in 2021). CPJ calls this “a reflection of authorities’ ruthless crackdown on the women-led uprisings that erupted in September.”

Other countries at the top of the list include China, Myanmar, Turkey, and Belarus. CPJ notes that in 131 cases, the imprisoned journalists have not been charged with any crime.

While the U.S. may not make the list this year — none of the reporters arrested here remained incarcerated as of the Dec. 1, 2022 census date — U.S. policy still contributes to the dire situation reporters face worldwide.

Our government’s silence speaks volumes when it turns a blind eye to international abuses and fails to prioritize press freedoms at home. The ongoing prosecution of Julian Assange for journalistic activities sets a dangerous precedent for the global press and gifts oppressive regimes a convenient whataboutism to deflect from their abuses.

Another prominent example from 2022 was the Biden administration’s position that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman should be immunized from civil liability over his role in murdering journalist Jamal Khashoggi, despite the availability of legal arguments against immunity.

Yet another was the administration’s reluctance to investigate the killing by the Israeli army of journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, even when video evidence contradicted Israel’s shifting narratives.

The annual Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index, which also relies on data from the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, will be released in the coming months. It will provide further details, beyond arrests and imprisonments, on the state of press freedoms worldwise.

It’s impossible to quantify the global impact of U.S. inaction, but official condemnations of abuses by adversaries like Iran, often inadequate in their own right, ring especially hollow when we won’t speak up against allies and client-states even when they murder journalists.

And while the Department of Justice deserves credit for revising its policies to protect journalists from surveillance, the administration couldn’t be bothered to support the PRESS Act, despite bipartisan support for the strongest shield law ever proposed. That says something about our priorities.

Let’s hope the 2023 census brings better news, both at home and abroad. And let’s hope for sustainable improvement, arising not just from fluid circumstances like frequency of protests but from increased legal protections for journalists and changes in attitudes towards press freedoms.

For that to happen, the U.S. will need to practice what its Constitution preaches.

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